KC Council considers South End service change for September

Metro map of planned route 160, which is also a preview of the future RapidRide I Line.

Metro service in South King County has been the unsung hero of Seattle-area transit for many years, serving lots of lower-income people in mostly unwalkable communities but never quite getting the service improvements even Metro admits it deserves. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted further the importance of the South End network, with virtually every South End trunk route on Metro’s list of routes most important to essential workers. It’s always welcome when Metro takes a fresh look at this critical service.

Recently, Metro has been engaged in a Renton-Kent-Auburn Mobility Project, thinking about how to improve the all-day network, centered around Kent Station, that serves the Green River Valley and Kent East Hill. Metro produced a proposed restructure last fall, and then made minor refinements after receiving public comment. The King County Council is now considering the result, which is likely to be adopted and take effect in September 2020.

The proposal is centered around a new route 160, which is intended to use the same routing as the future RapidRide I Line. The route would be effectively an extension of current route 169, absorbing the portion of current route 180 between Kent Station and Auburn Station. For now, route 160 would be scheduled at similar frequencies to route 169, with further improvements coming with the RapidRide I Line conversion in 2023. Other changes are complementary, and described later in this post.

Of course, Metro is in an environment of major operational and financial uncertainty as a result of COVID-19. The planned frequencies in this proposal do not reflect Metro’s temporary Reduced Schedule or any permanent cuts that may be necessary as a result of COVID-19 financial impact. If COVID-19’s economic effects continue, what riders finally see on the street in September 2020 may look significantly different from what follows after the jump.

Continue reading “KC Council considers South End service change for September”

Metro to impose 25% service cut Monday; details still unclear

On Wednesday, Councilmember Rod Dembowski was the first to share the news of upcoming Metro service cuts, made in recognition of sharp drops in both ridership and sales tax revenue during the COVID-19 crisis. Late yesterday, Metro told us that those cuts would start Monday, and that the agency would cut about 25 percent of its service, affecting nearly every route in the network. The cuts are intended to be temporary. Service will ramp back up whenever the COVID-19 situation allows King County residents to resume normal activities. Metro indicates that they will not be laying off operators for now.

We are still waiting for details on which trips will be cut, and how the cuts will affect frequency and span of service. As soon as Metro provides us with more detail, we’ll tell you about it. But you don’t get to 25 percent without major pain, and it’s reasonable to expect substantial frequency reductions and likely some span-of-service reductions as well. For now, we only know the following:

Routes entirely canceled. The following routes will not operate at all, starting Monday (UPDATE: Metro’s latest information moved route 309 off this list):

  • 9. Use route 7, with a transfer to route 60 or the First Hill Streetcar.
  • 29. Use route 2.
  • 47. Walk to route 10.
  • 78. Walk to routes 65 and 75.
  • 125. Walk to route 120 or 131, whichever is more accessible.
  • 200. Most destinations on this route will not be open. For service to Swedish Issaquah, walk from Issaquah Highlands P&R.
  • 208. No replacement service.
  • 237. Use Sound Transit routes 532 and 535; park at Kingsgate P&R.
  • 308. Use route 312 or 77. No replacement service to Horizon View.
  • 309. Use route 312 and transfer to local service to First Hill.
  • 330. Use local services serving Northgate, and transfer there.
  • ST 541. Use ST 542.

Routes with no cuts. There are a few routes with no cuts at all: 22, 105, 118, 119, 154.

Every route not on one of the above two lists will have some sort of service cut, probably substantial. Again, we don’t know yet what those cuts entail. Given the sudden onset of these cuts, we’ve asked Metro to share that information as soon as possible. Once we have it, we’ll pass it along.

Metro service change: All about the North Eastside

KEY UPDATE: This post was written several days before Metro confirmed service reductions beginning Monday. It is likely that the frequencies described in this post will be reduced, but we won’t know how they are being reduced until Metro makes a detailed announcement, which we expect tomorrow. Watch this space for an explanation of the service reductions once we know what they are.

In light of current events, you probably aren’t thinking much about agency service changes. But there is one coming this Saturday, March 21, and the agencies are going ahead with it. For Metro, this one is a bit different than we’ve usually seen over the last few years. Instead of spreading “peanut butter” service additions throughout the system, the agency is focusing only on one major restructure, with almost no changes anywhere else.

That restructure is the long-awaited North Eastside Mobility Plan, which arrives mostly in the form that Metro originally envisioned. The attention-grabbing headline is the redirection of route 255, Kirkland’s busiest core service, from downtown Seattle to UW Station. But there are also lots of changes to other local service in and around Kirkland, some of which will also affect riders in parts of Redmond, Bellevue, Kenmore, Bothell, and Woodinville. Details of the restructure are below the jump.

It’s worth noting that COVID-19 will likely hamper Metro’s efforts to communicate details of this restructure to the public. Metro told STB’s Dan Ryan that the “street teams” the agency had out in force at the start of the last couple restructures will not be present, in order to minimize the risk of transmission. Metro says it is looking at other ways to communicate with riders in real time.

Continue reading “Metro service change: All about the North Eastside”

Metro proposes new network for North Link

Metro map of the proposed network, zoomed out.

In 2021, Sound Transit’s Northgate Link Extension will add three new stations to the light rail line formerly known as Central Link: University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate. As with previous Link extensions, Metro plans to restructure bus service to improve connections to the new stations and reduce duplication with new light rail service. Given the large, heavily populated swath of North Seattle that the Northgate Link stations will serve, we expected this restructure to be particularly far-reaching. And Metro’s first proposal does not disappoint.

In the broadest terms, Metro wants to leverage Link for almost every trip where it could make sense, and to shift bus hours from redundant trips downtown into local routes and commuter service to destinations Link doesn’t reach. Riders traveling between the north end and downtown can expect to use light rail for at least part of their trips, while many riders within North Seattle will have new nonstop connections and buses that run more often.

Before we dive into what it means for specific areas (below the jump), we should note that this proposal is about high-level network concepts more than granular details. Metro is offering only general information about the level of service riders can expect on each proposed route, and says that it intends to gather feedback about specific tradeoffs during community outreach that will happen over the next few months. Based on experience of past Link proposals, it’s possible that this one could barely change, that it could be redrawn wholesale, or anything in between—depending on feedback Metro receives. Tell Metro what you think, whether or not you like what you see. Their survey is open until April 7.

Continue reading “Metro proposes new network for North Link”

Metro dishes up the peanut butter

Route 44 will see a frequency bump on Sundays (SounderBruce)

In recent years, with the Seattle area financially flush and demand for public transit rising by the week, there hasn’t been much mystery to Metro service changes. Each one has added just a few more service hours, devoted to some combination of improving the network and backfilling for construction-related headaches. And the next one, which starts this Saturday, September 21, is no exception.

Happily, after Seattle Squeeze impacts ate most of last March’s added hours, Metro had a bit more latitude this time to make improvements that riders can see. There are no major route changes, but a generous helping of “peanut butter”-style frequency and span improvements continue the trend toward a better frequent network. The Sunday improvements in Seattle are particularly welcome, and we hope they continue. It would be really nice to stop saying “It’s Sunday. Let’s not take the bus.”

Martin asked me to cover Sound Transit service changes as well, but there is almost nothing changing about Sound Transit service. The very few changes are mixed in below.

Continue reading “Metro dishes up the peanut butter”

The 35th Disaster: How the City Should Learn from Metro

The roundly panned plan for the most critical segment of 35th. Rendering by SDOT.

On Tuesday, SDOT announced an ugly split-the-baby solution to community deadlock over the planned redesign of 35th Ave NE, the central neighborhood arterial of Wedgwood and Bryant. The solution seems custom-designed to upset everyone in the debate, sacrificing both the bike lanes recommended in the city’s own Bike Master Plan and the street parking that was the central focus of opponents’ demands. Instead, drivers get a two-way turn lane for most of the corridor and freeway-style 12-foot general purpose lanes.

The new design for 35th, with its wider lanes, additional passing opportunities, and inevitably higher speeds, is a serious threat to the safety of people outside cars. But the point of this post is not to re-litigate 35th, but to suggest a way for the city to avoid this sort of worst-case outcome in future projects. In short, to have any chance of meeting its own Vision Zero goals, the city must establish legally binding guidelines for the redesign of all arterial corridors, and then direct professional staff to follow them when it is time to design individual projects. And there is a very good local example of how to do exactly that: King County Metro. The details, along with some history, are below the jump.

Continue reading “The 35th Disaster: How the City Should Learn from Metro”

Metro Adds Hours, But Tunnel Closure Swallows Them

The 6th Avenue bus lane, ready to debut later this month (Bruce Englehardt)

Orange and white Rider Alert signs are sprouting around the city like early March crocuses, which must mean it’s time for another Metro service change. Not so long ago, we dreaded these. Now we look forward to them. We’ve now had four years of improvements without any significant pain, as a combination of continued sales tax revenue growth and Seattle Proposition 1 investments have allowed the agency to address urgent needs and boost service levels throughout its network.

This service change, which starts Saturday, March 23, is a little different. The local economic music has not yet stopped, so Metro is still adding hours. But, this time, riders won’t be seeing commensurate network improvements.

The culprit is the closure of the downtown transit tunnel to buses, driven by the construction of the Washington State Convention Center Addition and the resulting loss of the northern tunnel entrance at the former Convention Place Station. A majority of the additional hours in this service change are dedicated to adding running time to tunnel routes, which is needed because their trips on downtown surface streets will be slower than trips through the tunnel. (Trips through the tunnel on Link trains, however, should be faster and more reliable with the buses gone.)

Another significant change triggered by the tunnel closure is the opening of a new northbound bus pathway through downtown. While the existing three southbound pathways (Third, Second, and Fifth Avenues) had sufficient capacity to absorb the buses displaced by the tunnel, there were only two existing northbound pathways (Third and Fourth Avenues), and they lack capacity to absorb more buses. In response, SDOT and Metro have created a third northbound pathway, using a bus-only contraflow lane on Fifth Avenue south of Marion and middle bus lanes on Sixth Avenue north of Marion. Those who have suffered through the Howell Street bus lane may be skeptical of the Sixth Avenue lanes; it remains to be seen how they will perform. The new pathway will host one all-day route, the 255 to Kirkland, and a number of peak-hour routes to North King County and the northern Eastside.

Also in an effort to improve bus capacity further, all-door boarding with off-bus ORCA card readers will be available at all stops on Third Avenue downtown.

In addition to these major changes, there are a few network improvements. See the details below the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Adds Hours, But Tunnel Closure Swallows Them”

Metro Report Highlights South King, SLU Needs

Photo by Bruce Englehardt.

For the last seven years, Metro’s service-change planning has been driven by the agency’s Service Guidelines, adopted by the County Council to professionalize a planning process that had been increasingly driven by political pressure on individual Council members. The Service Guidelines process has been enormously helpful to the agency over time, allowing it to prioritize hours in a way that benefits the highest number of riders (with a special emphasis on riders from disadvantaged communities written in) and enables continued ridership growth.

Part of the Service Guidelines process is an annual report on system performance, now called the System Evaluation. The report highlights areas where investment is needed under the Service Guidelines in three priority areas: 1) overcrowding, 2) schedule reliability, and 3) service growth. It also contains a treasure trove of route-level reliability and ridership data.

Metro recently released to the public the 2018 System Evaluation, which is based on data collected after the fall 2017 service change. The report identifies various needs scattered throughout Metro’s system, but two particular areas of focus jump off its pages. The first is that endlessly congested traffic conditions in South Lake Union continue to present major reliability challenges for north-south transit in that area, even after continuous investment of large numbers of hours in SLU service over the last four years. The second is that most of the highest-priority needs for overall network growth, rather than spot fixes, are in South King County outside of Seattle.

SLU

The SLU needs are not a surprise to anyone who ever travels through the area. Every north-south route through SLU except route 70 appears on the list of routes needing reliability improvement. Routes 62 and 40, the two highest-ridership core services connecting the heart of SLU with North Seattle, need the highest investment of all routes on the list. Unfortunately, “investment” that increases running time and recovery time is of only limited use to stuck passengers. The continuing reliability challenges in this area underscore the need for much more comprehensive transit priority, especially longer bus lanes with fewer gaps at problematic intersections such as those at Mercer and Denny.

South King County

The more fundamental challenge that comes out of this year’s System Evaluation is the need for major network investment in South King County, both in the all-day network and commuter service. Fully half of the routes requiring reliability improvement are South King County routes, and the report specifically calls out declining reliability of I-5 South commuter service. In the network growth category, six of the top ten priorities for growth are South King County routes.

Reviewing past System Evaluations reveals that underservice in South King County is not a new phenomenon. But it has been thrown into sharp relief with the improvements to the Seattle network funded through 2014’s Proposition 1. The Eastside has had relatively generous service for years in comparison to ridership, thanks to the politically driven “40/40/20” (Eastside/South/Seattle) service growth formula that ruled Metro during the 1990s and 2000s. More recently, Proposition 1 corrected a significant amount of historical underinvestment in Seattle service. Now, needs in South King County increasingly stand out. Under the Service Guidelines’ equity-driven approach, the higher concentration of lower-income and minority residents in many South King County communities only reinforces the need for further investment in the south end.

The King County Council as a whole should be prepared to listen to what the System Evaluation is saying, and prioritize the investments in South King County that it recommends. In major South King County destinations, ridership exists to support a frequent network comparable to the one Proposition 1 has helped Metro build in Seattle. Building that network needs to be Metro’s and the Council’s first service development priority in the near future.

Metro Service Change: More Service, Again

Metro coach 2758 operating route 41, turning into the express lanes from 9th Ave.
Metro route 41, soon to get more frequent. Photo by Bruce Englehardt.

Over the last three years, we’ve gotten used to a continuous stream of service improvements from Metro.  The pattern continues with this fall’s service change, which starts next Saturday, September 22.  There are almost no substantive changes to Metro service this time around.  The big picture is a peanut-butter-style scattering of new trips throughout the Metro system, some funded by Metro itself and some by the Seattle TBD.

New 10-Minute Service

The most headline-worthy addition is that routes 41, 70, and RapidRide E Line go to 10-minute frequency during the day on weekdays.  This is a minor adjustment for the E Line, which already has 10-minute frequency most of the time, and just needed a few gaps filled. It’s a bigger change for the 41 and 70, both of which have 15-minute midday service today.  Weekend and evening service will remain at current 12- to 15-minute frequencies on all three routes.

SR 99 Reroutes

Metro has finally disclosed what will happen to West Seattle Bridge and SR 509 service once the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes.  The changes will happen in two phases.

Phase 1 covers the time when both the viaduct and the new SR 99 tunnel are closed.  Plans for this phase remain subject to change.  Routes that currently use the Alaskan Way Viaduct to reach the West Seattle Bridge, including RapidRide C Line, 21 Express, 37, 55, 56, 57, 120, and 125, will use surface streets: 4th Ave northbound, and the current route 21 routing (but without local stops) southbound.  Service on these routes will be slower, but stop locations shouldn’t change.  Routes that proceed south on Highway 99, including 113, 121, 122, and 123, will use 1st Ave S south of S Lander St, missing stops along E Marginal Way S and resulting in a long walk for passengers in that area.

Metro will shift to Phase 2 after the SR 99 tunnel opens and the new ramps connecting SR 99 to S Dearborn St are operational.  All ex-Viaduct service will use 1st Ave S to reach those ramps and then resume normal route along SR 99, serving all normal stops.  The Phase 2 routing will likely be in place for several years, until the City of Seattle has completed construction of the new Alaskan Way as far as Columbia St.  1st Ave S service has in the past been prone to delays, and it is still not clear if buses will receive any priority along 1st Ave S between Columbia St and S Dearborn St.

Other changes, all minor, below the jump.

Continue reading “Metro Service Change: More Service, Again”

Mayor Durkan Releases Summary of Streetcar Study

Rendering of the Center City Connector on First Avenue
Rendering of the Center City Connector on First. Courtesy of Seattle Streetcar.

In a classic holiday-Friday news dump, yesterday afternoon Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released a summary of the long-awaited third-party report on the Center City Connector. The summary, prepared by Big Four accounting firm KPMG rather than a consultant with specialized transit expertise, brings both good and bad news for the CCC project.

The headline number that drove immediate coverage, total capital cost, is definitely bad news. KPMG’s estimate is sharply higher than previous ones. For the project as planned before the Mayor’s March stop-work order, the total capital cost is now estimated at $252 million, up from $198 million projected in fall 2016. KPMG also studied a scenario where the CCC operates with lower peak frequency, reducing vehicle requirements, and found that the capital cost was not much lower, at $242 million. The city has not yet identified any funding source to cover the difference in the event that the project goes forward. The summary breaks down the increase into a few broad categories, but it is difficult to tell from the chosen categories how much of the increase is attributable to planning errors by the city and how much stems from the sharply more expensive construction environment that has also bedeviled Sound Transit and private projects throughout the area.

The sharply increased capital cost weakens the argument previously made by some CCC supporters that the cost of canceling the project is almost as high as the cost of building it. The report identifies the capital cost of a no-build option, including needed utility work and already-completed design and planning work, as $55 million. FTA has tentatively committed a further $75 million, which the city would most likely lose if the project weren’t built. The difference in expected capital spending between the no-build and build options is now $122 million, roughly twice as much as expected using previous estimates. Continue reading “Mayor Durkan Releases Summary of Streetcar Study”

The Center City Connector and the First and Yesler Stop

Articulated Metro coach signed "18 North Beach"
Back when west-side local bus routes served First Avenue. Photo taken in 2009 by Andy Tucker.

“First and Yesler, Pioneer Square. James Street, Cherry Street, Pioneer Square Station, courthouse, Downtown Emergency Service Center.”

As my words rolled through the microphone and the rest of the slowing bus, competing as always with engine noise, I was already focused on the people waiting at the bus zone in question.  On this average May afternoon, I saw about thirty of them. Half were tourists, waiting in a tentative pack close to the bus stop sign. Sprawled on nearby benches were several regulars headed up to Bell, who might or might not have interesting beverages in their black plastic bags.  Standing farther back in the zone were a few early-departing commuters, focused intently on my signage, thankful to read “18 North Beach Via Ballard” at exactly the scheduled time. I threw open both doors, and they all clambered up the stairs. As usual, a couple tried intently to put bills into the farebox despite my hand in the way and the big green “Ride Free Area” sign. As I closed the doors, the last person through the front leaned over and asked “This bus goes to Pike’s Market, right?” Unable to resist a gentle correction, I said “Yes ma’am. For Pike Place Market, get off at Stewart Street.”

Pulling away just in time to make the green light at Cherry, I had about sixty people on board, which meant a few were in the aisle. More passengers got on at Marion, and more still at University. The big D60 coach started to feel a bit crowded as it climbed the steady grade of First, my right foot summoning equal parts motion and loudness. I knew the crowding would be brief.

“Stewart Street. Pine Street. Pike Place Market. Westlake. Westlake Station. Retail core.”

While making the announcement, I arrived at the zone, a bit less than a minute ahead of schedule. But I wasn’t worried about the technical violation of Metro rules. The departing stampede of both tourists and locals would use that minute and more, so I was in no danger of leaving early. Although the shelter was crowded with commuters waiting to get on, there would be plenty of seats for them once the “Pike’s Market” group had left.  As usual, those few First Avenue blocks would be the busiest part of my entire trip, even though it covered the length of the city from Arbor Heights to Loyal Heights.

Continue reading “The Center City Connector and the First and Yesler Stop”

School Safety Takes a Back Seat in Beacon Hill

Looking west across the current 15th/Columbia intersection.
What a Mercer student needing to catch a 107 bus sees today. Image from Google Maps.

[Update: Beacon Hill Safe Streets has this form to contact your representatives.]

A project to improve safety at the confusing and pedestrian-hostile intersection of 15th Avenue South and South Columbian Way in Beacon Hill, adjacent to Mercer Middle School, has been on SDOT’s radar for many years. (UPDATE: Seattle Neighborhood Greenways’ Gordon Padelford correctly points out in comments that Beacon Hill Safe Streets has played the lead role supporting and organizing for the project throughout.)  SDOT data shows an average of five injury collisions annually over the last decade at this intersection. But Mercer students must cross the intersection to access Metro routes 60 and 107, which are the primary transit connections to most of Beacon Hill. The project finally received funding through 2016’s Move Seattle levy, as one of twelve safety projects added to the city’s Neighborhood Street Fund program. Last year, SDOT published a draft design that would simplify the intersection, add marked and signalized crosswalks on all sides, and make the wide and dangerous slip lane into a pedestrian plaza, as shown below:

 

Map of SDOT's initial proposed design
SDOT’s initial proposed design for 15th/Columbian.

This design won praise from safety advocates, but some drivers in the community vehemently objected to the lack of a separate signal for eastbound drivers on S Oregon St (as exists today).  Drivers feared that they would be subject to long delays trying to turn left from S Oregon onto 15th Ave S.  But when SDOT studied adding the S Oregon signal back, its modeling suggested that cars crossing the intersection would be subject to delays of two to three minutes.

To accommodate these concerned drivers without delay, SDOT on Tuesday proposed a compromise design, which would add the S Oregon signal back, but remove the crosswalk on the north side of the 15th/Columbian intersection:

A map of SDOT's compromise design for 15th/Columbian, with no crosswalk on the north side of the intersection and the S Oregon signal.
SDOT’s “compromise” design for 15th/Columbian.

To be blunt, the compromise is insane.  It sacrifices the safety of middle school kids who walk and ride transit—children between ages 12 and 14!—for a very slight improvement in driver convenience. Continue reading “School Safety Takes a Back Seat in Beacon Hill”

Hearing About Congestion Pricing? Ask About Transit Investment.

Cars and Double Tall buses on the Stewart Street offramp from the southbound I-5 regular lanes
A likely place for congestion pricing sensors. Photo by Bruce Englehardt.

It’s safe to say that Seattle transit advocates are uncertain about Mayor Jenny Durkan’s commitment to transit.  The fate of the Center City Connector continues to grow murkier. The Mayor told a large, powerful coalition of CCC advocates to talk to the hand.  Several transit and safe streets projects throughout Seattle have been delayed or canceled (although others have proceeded on schedule).  Funding shortfalls shrank and delayed RapidRide projects, while leaving expensive auto-centered projects like the Lander bridge unaffected.  One Center City lost many of its transit priority ideas in becoming Imagine Downtown.  Throughout all of this, the mayor’s office has not said much about transit, except occasionally to point out its numerical necessity in the most general terms.

The mayor, though, has continued to talk up one transportation proposal: congestion pricing.  Often called “decongestion pricing” by advocates who want to clarify its goal, the policy charges car drivers to enter central city areas, with higher charges during the most crowded hours. (Other policies such as HOT lanes and variable bridge/tunnel tolls are also forms of congestion pricing, but aren’t what the mayor is proposing.)  Central city congestion pricing has been implemented in London, Singapore, and Stockholm, but nowhere in the United States to date.  Among U.S. cities, only New York has seriously considered it, so far without action. Continue reading “Hearing About Congestion Pricing? Ask About Transit Investment.”

SDOT Announces 3rd Avenue Improvements

3rd Avenue, with many buses and a few cars
Photo by Zack Heistand.

On Friday, SDOT and Metro announced two rounds of transit improvements for 3rd Avenue, still the region’s busiest transit corridor.  They will coincide with the next two Metro service changes, and are as follows:

September 2018

  • Extend the hours of the current car restrictions along 3rd to 6 a.m.-7 p.m. seven days a week (with 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. exception for permitted commercial vehicles).
  • Ban left turns from 3rd Ave at all times.
  • Remove on-street parking from Prefontaine Pl at all times.

March 2019

  • Install ORCA readers and real-time arrival signs at all 3rd Ave stops, not only those served by RapidRide.
  • Move current southbound stop at James St one block north.

Metro will also be adding a new northbound bus stop between Columbia and Marion at a later date, and presumably shuffling routes between stops for greater efficiency.

We continue to think that painting 3rd completely red would be the best and clearest solution, and would be amply warranted by the volume of bus riders 3rd serves.  But these changes are welcome, and better in some respects than the rumor mill and previous statements by SDOT staff had led us to believe.

The 24/7 ban on left turns off 3rd is a particularly happy surprise.  Left-turning cars frequently block the southbound through lane at all hours, holding up through buses.  Banning left turns 24/7 will also cause TNC drivers’ navigation apps not to recommend those turns, while the apps appear to ignore peak-hour turn restrictions.

It also wasn’t clear until recently that SDOT would extend car restrictions to weekends, despite frequent car-caused traffic congestion on weekend afternoons.  The weekend restrictions should improve bus reliability, especially given Metro’s longtime tendency toward optimistic scheduling on weekends.

With cars allowed in some places and at some times, enforcement will continue to be a challenge, as it is today. Enforcement of existing restrictions by SPD and Metro Transit Police has been inconsistent, and typically absent when traffic crashes or special events create gridlock on surrounding streets—allowing the gridlock to spread to 3rd and paralyze bus service too.  SDOT and SPD should prioritize enforcement more than they have to date.  In particular, more, not less, enforcement should happen on days when car traffic elsewhere is heavier than usual, so buses can provide a resilient alternative for people trying to get home.

A Few Words About Housing Supply

In response to several requests, this post is adapted from a recent Twitter thread that readers seemed to like, even though I impulsively started it during a break at work while irritated at some tweets.

There’s a straw man that gets a lot of abuse in online housing debates: that the more-market-oriented variety of pro-housing activists (like several of us at STB) think “housing is simple” or “supply will fix everything.” That’s never been true, and I thought it might be helpful to clarify what’s driving the refrain of “add housing supply.”

When we talk about supply, what we’re saying isn’t remotely “supply will fix everything wrong with housing.” It’s “without more supply, it’s really freaking hard to fix anything.” Adequate supply makes it much easier and cheaper to do lots of good things, both in and beyond housing. The environment of extreme housing scarcity (which has been around throughout the adult lives of many West Coasters under 35!) corrupts every public effort not only to house people, but to improve their lives in myriad other ways.  In an environment of housing scarcity, landlords have so much leverage that they can completely hijack progress on many goals that have consensus support among all factions of the West Coast left.  Wage increases, subsidized health care, and subsidized child care end up allowing people to pay more for rent–and, where housing is scarce, landlords can & will demand that they get all of the extra money such efforts put in people’s pockets.

Making housing public (while it may be desirable for other reasons) doesn’t address housing scarcity on its own.  A government agency that operates public housing is still a landlord, and it still has leverage, even though that leverage may get exercised in ways other than higher rent.  Where there’s scarcity, public homes often get allocated according to connections, insider relationships, seniority in the area, or just plain luck.  Rich people make illicit deals with the lucky winners to occupy units.

Scarcity gives landlords leverage.  But the best way a tenant can exercise leverage over any landlord, private or public, is to say “Screw you, I’m moving.” That can’t happen where housing is scarce.  But it can happen.  I’ve experienced it: in my 20s, making $11-12 per hour, I moved out of an apartment where the landlord was trying to sharply increase my rent, because other apartments were readily available at reasonable cost.

Getting to an environment where “screw you, I’m moving” is a credible threat can’t happen immediately.  But it is possible, and it requires three policy changes: 1) tenant protections to make moving cheaper (which might include lower penalties for early move-out, lower security deposits, and a uniform low-fee application); 2) serious fair housing enforcement that is strong enough to address widespread discrimination against renters of color and renters with disabilities; and 3) yes, sufficient supply.

“Sufficient supply” has to be at a local level.  A frequent criticism of supply-side housing advocates is that more supply helps at a region-wide level, but can have localized negative effects that people ignore. That’s valid! It doesn’t give a tenant any helpful leverage when new supply is all in other places, or when it’s all extremely expensive because there’s not enough of it.  Saying “screw you, I’m moving… 20 miles away where there’s housing” isn’t real leverage.  Real leverage for tenants is the ability to move locally, so that a move doesn’t upend a tenant’s life or create a horrible commute.

How to achieve that will vary, a lot, between neighborhoods.  In wealthier areas with less risk that low-income tenants will be displaced, it’s good enough to say “upzone, and let developers build as fast as possible.” But we need to add supply in poorer areas too, because tenants there are so much more prone to exploitation and displacement when there is housing scarcity.  It’s impossible to address housing scarcity in an area without adding lots of housing there.

And, again, supply by itself is not enough.  More supply in low-income areas will not fix poverty.  It won’t ever provide housing for the lowest-income populations, which don’t tend to be served well by housing markets.  Initially, it won’t even provide working-income tenants with any leverage, until enough is built that scarcity is eased. All these things are true.  And, even so, we still need to build everywhere in the area to have any real effect on the condition of scarcity.

If we don’t fix scarcity, other efforts will continue to spin their wheels like an articulated bus on ice. Anti-displacement and tenant activists will be Sisyphuses, trying to roll a heavy rock of landlord leverage uphill.  Anti-poverty efforts will founder, because money will go to landlords instead of staying in the pockets of people with low incomes.  Public housing won’t serve residents with very low incomes well, because people with more money will muscle in.  New market construction will all be for the rich, even where it’s basic; so-called “luxury” apartments are rarely much different from cheap ones, except for their location.  Housing abundance will ease all of these issues.

Supply is not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. But enough of it would make all of the other work that housing advocates do much easier, and is absolutely necessary to ease the stranglehold that landlords currently have on their tenants.  It’s a huge project, that will take years of building, and there will certainly be problems to address along the way.  But we need to keep building for the dream of a future without housing scarcity to have any possibility of coming true.

Mayor Durkan’s Moment of Third Avenue Truth

Rainy Third Avenue with lots of buses
Third Avenue in 2018-appropriate weather. Photo by Wings777.

About two weeks ago, in the wake of her controversial decision to “pause” the Center City Connector streetcar project, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the latest in the ever-evolving series of One Center City concepts. The unwelcome headline was a two- to three-year delay for the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane and other bike infrastructure. Mayor Durkan’s announcement was also paired with an interesting congestion pricing trial balloon. All of that may have distracted us briefly from taking a fine-tooth comb to the OCC materials, but it’s impossible to keep transit wonks away from poring over documents for very long. Seattle Subway gets credit for noticing a subtle change to the Third Avenue plans: “All Day Transit-Only Operation” on Third, one of the most exciting bullet points in the previous plan, became “extended transit priority hours” in the latest materials.

Metro’s Jeff Switzer told me by email that the wording change did not actually represent a change in planned policy.  He wrote, explaining the previous “transit only” language: “The term ‘transit only’ is sometimes used to describe this type of operation. Non[-]transit vehicles are not allowed to travel the corridor, but may drive on certain blocks, adhering to a series of turn restrictions.”  In other words, the current plan is to extend today’s peak-hour treatment to include midday on weekdays, without implementing any additional car restrictions.  Jeff’s answer came as a bit of a surprise (okay, a crushing blow), given SDOT’s comments when the previous slides were issued. (We’ve asked SDOT for comment as well, but have not yet received it. UPDATE: I spoke by phone with SDOT’s Andrew Glass Hastings this morning. He confirmed Jeff’s answers, but also shared that SDOT is studying a variety of strategies to speed transit on Third, beyond the OCC plan. We may have more to say about those later.)

It’s no surprise that we aren’t fans of the current approach. Describing the current situation as “transit only” doesn’t remotely reflect reality, as any rider of Third Avenue buses knows. Heavy car volume and turning cars frequently impede buses, particularly in the northern portion of downtown. Compliance by car drivers with the turn restrictions is low, probably because of a combination of driver confusion and willful flouting. And all of this is for the sake of a tiny percentage of users.  Bus routes using Third Avenue carry well over 100,000 daily passengers, with Metro estimating that 47,500 of them board at Third Avenue stops.  By contrast, when you subtract the 3,000 daily bus trips from overall vehicle traffic numbers, SDOT estimates that only 6,100 cars use the most congested portion of Third Avenue daily. Given the turn restrictions, many of those are using the street only to reach or exit nearby parking facilities.

It’s time for Mayor Durkan to intervene in this process.  She can and should turn Third Avenue over entirely to buses, at least during the day. That decision would be good policy, and also good politics. Read why after the jump.

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Service Change: Metro’s Music Keeps Playing

KCM coach 6854 running route 101 with test white LED signage
KCM 6854 sporting unusual signage. Photo by Erubisu.

After almost three years without any significant service cuts, we’ve gotten pretty used to happy service change announcements from Metro.  The latest change, which begins this coming Saturday, March 10, is no exception.  Service additions are sprinkled throughout the system without much countervailing bad news.  (The redundant route 99 does disappear, but ridership numbers suggest that no one will notice.)  This service change brings no major restructures of service, so increased service is the big story.  It’s scattered throughout the system, but with a particularly welcome and overdue focus on the greater Kent area.

Other news includes:

  • a new approach to Renton-downtown service on routes 101 and 102;
  • construction reroutes in Sodo and the Central District (including significant hassles for the relatively few riders of route 4’s Judkins Park tail); and
  • minor routing changes in downtown Seattle and downtown Redmond to match changing traffic patterns.

Specifics below the jump.

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No Clear Consensus on Routes 3/4

Metro route 3. Photo by Tim Bond.

Metro recently released a summary of community feedback on its proposal to move a short segment of routes 3 and 4 from James St to Yesler Wy.  As we’ve come to expect with proposals to change the oldest parts of Metro’s network, the feedback was deeply muddled.  Metro’s Magic 8-Ball said: “Reply Hazy, Try Again.”

Online survey respondents favored the change, 53 to 40 percent.  Most of the few people who contacted Metro by email or phone opposed the change.  Stakeholder organizations were split along geographic lines; First Hill Improvement Association and WHEEL (which operates a women’s shelter near 8th and James) opposed the change, while Yesler Terrace Community Council supported it.  Supporters cited better reliability and improved service to Yesler Terrace, while opponents concentrated on potential difficulties accessing services on James for seniors and people with limited mobility.

In keeping with this split feedback, Metro plans to study a variety of options using both James and Yesler.  The agency will study transit priority measures on James, to see if there is any way to speed up buses despite the very high volume of I-5 traffic.  Previous studies have found bus lanes on James infeasible because the volume of I-5 car traffic trying to use James would create gridlock on other streets (including 9th Avenue, which the current routes use), but Metro will have another look.  At the same time, the agency will continue designing trolley overhead and other infrastructure along the Yesler route.  Finally, the agency will look at putting another (presumably less frequent) route onto James to provide access while moving routes 3 and 4 to Yesler.

By its nature, this feedback process could not include any voice representing the over 5,000 net new residents (including about 1,100 low-income residents) who will come to Yesler Terrace once redevelopment ($) is complete.  Redevelopment will turn Yesler Terrace into one of the city’s densest areas, and no comparable development is proposed for the area around James Street.  Yesler Terrace and downtown are currently connected only by infrequent route 27, which is obviously insufficient to serve the new population.  As a regular route 3 rider, I think the combination of reliability improvements and Yesler Terrace redevelopment makes the move to Yesler the obvious best option for routes 3 and 4.  Community feedback regarding access to the James/5th and James/8th stops, though, may warrant moving a low-ridership coverage route (the 27?) to James to serve those stops, despite the delays for riders that will certainly result.

PSA: Driving Respectfully

Drivers of a car and a Metro bus doing it right. We’ll ignore the car behind the bus. Photo by Mike Bjork.

More and more of us are riding transit every day. But the numbers say we also drive cars ($). 81 percent of Seattle households (including my own) still own at least one car. Many of those who don’t own cars use car sharing from time to time. Cars aren’t a sustainable solution for the majority of urban travel, but they will always be the best tool for certain trips.

Unfortunately, they’re also highly lethal, to the tune of over 40,000 deaths annually across the country—a number big enough to qualify as a leading cause of death and a major public health problem. In Seattle alone, we had 21 traffic fatalities in 2016, including 7 pedestrians and 5 cyclists killed. Nearly all of those fatalities are caused at least partly by driver inattention.

If you are a driver, you can reduce this risk! In last year’s “Driving for Urbanists” post, Zach described several ways drivers can make streets safer, most of which amount to treating other users with respect and courtesy. This time, I want to zoom in on just two aspects of respectful driving: crosswalks and lane control. Paying attention to these two things will make your driving as a whole much less threatening to vulnerable road users.

Yes, That Is A Crosswalk. Drive Accordingly.

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